In the aftermath of Tuukka Rask retiring Wednesday after attempting to return from offseason hip surgery, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney couldn’t picture an alternative outcome.
The complicated nature of an NHL season interrupted in December by COVID-19 added to the obstacles in the way of Rask’s comeback. He was with the team at Warrior Ice Arena daily, working himself into shape. A stint in AHL Providence might have allowed Rask to test his body in actual games, but leaguewide postponements made that impossible.
Sweeney couldn’t say it would have made a difference.
“Probably the end result would have been the same, given his body’s response to game activity,” Sweeney said Thursday. “He did an awful lot of work from a conditioning standpoint. He goes in, is able to play in four games, obviously not having the benefit of a training camp, not having the benefit of the start of a season.
“Some of those things may [have helped], but I think the end result is going to be the same. The hip and his back just started to give him some concerns on a daily basis, not just when it was going into game time.
“It was unfortunate that he probably didn’t get to test-drive that down in Providence, which was what the plan was. But ultimately, I think the result would have been the same.”
Now the Bruins have to look ahead. Before the season, they planned their goalie situation around the possibility of Rask returning — and weighed whether that would be sustainable. Now they are back where they were on opening day, with Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark sharing the netminding responsibilities.
“I do believe we set out a plan in the offseason that we had to address it as it plays out right now,” Sweeney said. “People thought we had some crystal ball going on with regards to Tuukka. We just made a promise and Tuukka made a promise to us that he would have surgery and try and rehab and get to a point. And we made a promise to him that if he was willing to do that, then he would have an opportunity if he was healthy. That’s how it played out.”
Before Rask’s return, Swayman played in 17 games (16 starts), going 7-7-2 with a .917 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average. He had been assigned to Providence to make room for Rask. Ullmark, 16-6-1 with a .913 save percentage and 2.64 GAA for the season entering Thursday, split duties with Rask, making four straight starts prior to the All-Star break as Rask dealt with health issues.
Sweeney didn’t think Rask’s presence had a negative affect on Swayman or Ullmark.
“It didn’t take away from what our plans were, having what we feel is really good goaltending,” Sweeney said. “And Jeremy is part of that. We pivoted a little bit in terms of where his development was, it didn’t hurt him. In that sense, he needs to play.”
Ullmark has played 25 games this season; his career high is 37 in 2018-19 with the Sabres. With 37 games left, Sweeney said there will be more opportunities for Swayman to play as they try to keep both goalies healthy moving toward the postseason.
“We’ve made a commitment organizationally over the last five, six years of really spreading out the goaltending to have an end result that we’re capable of being healthy and cross your fingers you’re being healthy at the right times and try to get to the playoffs and win,” Sweeney said. “That’s not going to change.”
Bergeron, Marchand out
Patrice Bergeron was out of the lineup against Carolina Thursday for just the second time this season as he recovers from a head injury after getting his skate tangled with Sidney Crosby’s and slamming into the boards in Tuesday’s loss to the Penguins. Bergeron will not travel with the team for Saturday afternoon’s game in Ottawa.
The Bruins also were without Brad Marchand, who served the first of a six-game suspension for roughing and high-sticking Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry.
Bergeron, who has a history of concussions, is being cautious.
“Everybody saw it,” Sweeney said. “He slammed into the boards and has a laceration in the back of his head, so we’re just just taking it day by day. No time frame whatsoever.”
Sweeney said he spoke with Marchand at length, and while Sweeney didn’t agree with the punishment, he added that Marchand, serving his second suspension of the season, was remorseful.
“He didn’t shun the fact that he was immature in his decision,” said Sweeney. “He allowed his emotions to control himself in that situation. He can’t unwind it at this point in time. The damage has been done.
“We’ve got to move forward. But hopefully he can. If you look at his accomplishments, specifically the last four to five years, he’s been pretty good. He’s had a couple transgressions here recently that hurt him — and his history has hurt him even more.”
Piecing it together
With two-thirds of the top line missing, the Bruins had to lean on David Pastrnak, Erik Haula, and Taylor Hall.
Craig Smith, who had been on the top line with Bergeron and Marchand, moved to the second line with Charlie Coyle and Jake DeBrusk.
The Bruins recalled forward Jack Studnicka along with defenseman Tyler Lewington from Providence. Oskar Steen was assigned to Providence.
Studnicka was slotted at center alongside Trent Frederic and Nick Foligno on the third line.
“Obviously with Bergy out, another right-shot centerman, it’s a good opportunity for Jack,” coach Bruce Cassidy said.
The fourth line was filled out by Tomas Nosek, Anton Blidh, and Curtis Lazar.
This is Studnicka’s third NHL stint this season. In five games entering Thursday, he had notched one assist and had been minus-1, averaging 11:54 minutes of ice time.
“He’s got to play to what the people are around him, but still be true to himself,” Cassidy said before the game. “Obviously playing with Freddy and Foligno, it’s a little more straight-line hockey — play behind your D when this situation dictates, make a play when we have time and space, be good defensively.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.